Why People Aren't As Afraid of Change As You Think

Candle, lightbulbs

Are people really afraid of change? Not in the way that many people think, says Dr. Robert Swaim in the second of a 4-part article series looking at managing change in an organization. Here's why.

Read Part I: Nine Reasons Organizations Need Change

"This is a new era of opportunity, but only for those who are willing to accept change as an opportunity, not for those who are afraid of it." Peter F. Drucker

Peter Drucker spoke of the need for organizations to become "change leaders." In today’s rapidly changing environment, he stressed that mangers must be able to anticipate, plan and lead change efforts in their organizations. Managers must also be able to create an organizational environment where change is seen as an opportunity, not a threat and resisted. Drucker also stated, "The organizations most likely to suffer the most are those with the delusion that tomorrow will be like yesterday."

This article provides insight from Drucker and deals specifically with why many change efforts are resisted or why some feel people are afraid of change. Concepts from the field of Organization Development are also included to supplement Drucker’s views. For a more comprehensive discussion of managing complex organizational change including change strategies, tactics and the action research model please refer to the author’s book, The Strategic Drucker.

Are People Afraid of Change?

Are people really afraid of change and why do they resist change? Witness the riots in the streets of Athens as a result of the government’s efforts to deal with Greece’s financial crisis. Similar mobs were seen in London as well as in the Wisconsin State Capital that was taken over by unruly members of the Wisconsin Teachers Union. All of these groups were resisting the efforts of their government’s leaders and fearing personal loss as a result of the changes been proposed. We have also seen governments resisting change in the Middle East and North Africa such as in Egypt, Libya, Syria and Yemen where they have relied on armed force to quell these change leaders.

On the other hand, if people are really afraid of change, how do we explain the election victory of a little known junior senator from Illinois, Barack Hussein Obama, whose 2007 platform was based on hope and change with the slogan of "change we can believe in"? And, can he repeat that victory with the same change strategy and win reelection in 2012?

This 4 part article series attempts to answer these questions.

Resistance to Change and Perceived Loss

The title of this article dealt with why people are afraid of change which is not really accurate. Rather, those who will be impacted by the change effort may resist the change effort for numerous reasons such as in the previous examples of the mobs. In actuality though, I prefer to state there is no such thing as just resistance to change but rather there is perceived loss or what people think they will lose as a result of the change effort or in some cases, actual loss.

These major sources of resistance to change include:

Source #1: Uncertainty about the causes and effects of the change

  • People avoid uncertainty (risk); established procedures are well known and predictable.
  • Lack of trust – Distrust of any changes instituted from above.
  • Need new skills – May need to learn new skills or information. Could have an initial negative impact on performance and impact rewards (compensation, promotion).
  • Negative performance – Change may be interpreted as not doing present job well.

Source #2: Unwillingness to give up existing benefits (perceived loss)

  • Unwillingness to give up tasks and relationships - The massive restructuring of the U.S. healthcare industry through the passage of "ObamaCare" is highly resisted as many feel they will lose the relationship they have with their present physician.
  • Loss of power, prestige, salary, quality of work, and other benefits (security) - The riots in Athens, London and Wisconsin can be attributed to this factor. These mobs are all going to lose certain benefits as a result of their governments’ attempt to deal with their financial crisis and massive debt. Many seniors in the U.S. are resisting the Republican Party’s suggested plan to restructure the Medicare program in order to control spiraling healthcare entitlement costs even those these planned changes will not impact anyone over the age of 55 – obviously a good example of perceived vs. actual loss.

Source #3: Awareness of a weakness in changes being proposed

  • Potential problems overlooked by initiators of the change ("We tried this before and it didn’t work.") - Many in the U.S. are resisting President Obama’s and the Democratic Party’s proposals to spend more money on a stimulus package to help stimulate a sluggish economic recovery or as some fear, a double-dip recession. They claim Obama’s first plan introduced in early 2009 cost over $1 trillion and produced marginal results, if any results at all. Most feel it was a political payoff and a reward for certain groups such as unions that supported Obama in the 2008 election.
  • Plan to introduce the change considered to be too complicated, costly, and too time consuming. May also disrupt current operations.
  • Lack of credibility of the Change Leader - Change Leader may not be respected by the organization or have credibility. Has this person been able to produce results before? What experience does the Change Leader have in previous change efforts?

It is somewhat amazing that Obama, running on a campaign of hope and change in 2007 did not encounter much resistance here even though he had virtually no executive experience and never planned and managed any significant change efforts in either government or private industry. How he overcame this drawback can be attributed to how he managed the "Change Equation" will be discussed in the final of our four articles.

Increasing Resistance to Change

All of these factors contributing to resistance or perceived loss will increase if:

  • Change threatening – Change is seen as threatening if not perceived as helpful.
  • Change not requested by impacted group – Change will be opposed by the impacted group unless they have specifically requested it.

The previously described mobs all strongly resisted because of these two factors. The Change Agents (government leaders) did a relatively poor job of communicating why the changes would be helpful to their counties and state as well as why there was a sense of urgency to prevent a financial crisis and national disaster. Once again this deals with not managing the "Change Equation" properly as will be covered shortly.

  • Line management did not request change – Change will be opposed by management as a real or imaginary threat to their prestige and authority unless they have specifically requested the change.
  • Group opposition – Group opposition is usually more than the sum total of individual’s opposition (2 + 2 = 6).
  • Magnitude of the change – The greater the change, the greater the opposition by the impacted groups. Once again, the mobs’ opposition was greater than any one individual’s and particularly impacted by the magnitude of the changes required to avert the financial crisis facing their governments.

These factors that increase resistance can be potentially reduced by communicating the benefits of the change and that there is also continuity with the change. Also, the greater the prestige of the manager supporting the change effort, or that of the Change Leader, the greater influence he or she can exert for the change. Providing information as to the seriousness of the situation now and the potential benefits of in the future as a result of the change can substantially reduce this resistance. Involving members of the impacted groups in the planning process can also create internal pressure for the change as they will have ownership in the change effort and therefore be more committed to the change – selling the benefits of the change to their other group members.

"People are not stressed because there’s too much change in organizations, but because of the way change is made." Peter F. Drucker Management Challenges for the 21st Century.

Read Part III: Eight Reasons Change Efforts Fail